After a few Coronas my dad might get “chatty,” but he is – and always has been – a man of very little words. Most, if not all, of my previous boyfriends were terrified, “I don’t think your dad likes me very much.” And my response, ever the same, would reassure, “Don’t worry; everyone thinks that. He’s just not much of a talker.”
Sometimes we think that because someone hasn’t got much to say that they must not have a story to tell when the truth is that sometimes those who stay quiet have the loudest stories. Stories that need to be told.
My dad is a man of little words, so he doesn’t brag or share his story unless he’s asked. And even then, I, who have asked, have only gotten the full story through 32 years of stitching together small details, open conversations, short answers, and candid retellings.
I am the talker that my dad is not. But telling this story has brought me a lot of anxiety. How do you tell a story that changed not only one life but singlehandedly altered the life of a whole family? I am a writer specifically because of this story – and I’ve never been able to quite put it into words.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
For many of us, we could probably, mas o menos (more or less), point to a time in our life when our lives – our path – entirely changed its course. But how many of us could pinpoint to a specific day and say This day. This solitary, single day was the day that changed my life and every life hereafter.
November 11, 1966 was my dad’s day
46 years ago this week, on a Friday night at 7:00, when many people were deciding what to wear out dancing or what bar to meet their friends at, my dad was preparing to leave Cuba for the rest of his life. He would leave Cuba, his home, and his mother only 20 days after turning 16 years old.
My father, as 16-year-old boy in Cuba, was turning the legal age to be involuntarily recruited to the servicio militar obligatorio (obligatory military service). This didn’t mean that you had to serve but that you had to register and be ready to serve. What this really meant was that one you turned 16, you weren’t going anywhere. You could kiss any hope of leaving the country for the next decade goodbye. You were now in the military’s service until you were 27. For my dad, many of his relatives were defecting or had already defected and his age now made him an anchor. Cuba would never let him leave and my grandmother would never leave without him.
I can only imagine that this decision for my dad was no decision at all because if you know my dad, you know he ain’t no kind of military man (a chapter in the book I am writing). A military guy? My dad? He once threw a stapler at someone who threw him attitude.
In Cuba, each neighborhood or block had a vigilante known as the Comittees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in charge of “guarding communism’s enemies.” I’ve heard people tell stories of playing American music quietly in fear of being reported or throwing the scraps of their meal away in a distant garbage away from their house to avoid the CDR knowing what they ate for dinner for fear of being asked where they got that “extra” steak from. People learned to keep their doors closed and their mouths closed even tighter. Anything you said could be used against you and you never knew who you were talking to.
My dad was from Caimanera, a small fishing town in the province of Guantánamo that in this instance had many perks, the biggest being the proximity to the U.S. Naval Base in the Guantánamo Bay. The base was so close that if you lived in Caimanera, it was said that you were either a fisherman or a Base man.
On the afternoon of the 11th, my father along with 2 other friends, went to another companion’s house where they would begin their escape. They arrived one by one to avoid rising suspicion with the neighborhood CDR. Yeah, a group raise suspicion. And the last thing they wanted was attention.
Half of his friend’s house was perched right over the water. By lifting the floor boards of the house, the boys would have easy access to the Bay without being noticed by anyone. Their plan was to stay in the house until the evening, under the floor board, until the sky was dark and the tide was high. And then they’d jump in the water and make a
run swim for it.
But the plan become a bit hairy when their friend’s father came home unexpectedly. The boys had to hide under a bed waiting very still and in silence until he left again. I don’t know if they didn’t tell his father for fear of being told on or just fear of him not letting them go. But like I said before, you learned to keep your door closed tight and your mouth even tighter. My father hadn’t told, hi mother, my grandmother either. He knew she would fight him and that she had no chance of convincing him out of it. So he told his great aunt, Concha with specific instructions:
You can’t tell her I’m leaving until after I’ve left. In the evening, don’t let her ask too many questions or get too worried. It will only call attention to where we are are. When she starts to ask if you’ve seen Rafelito, you can tell her then that I am gone.
As he sat and waited to leave, I wonder what he thought about. Was he sad that he’d never be back home? Was he scared to leave his mother? I’m 32 years old and still grow a lump in my throat whenever I think of leaving my mother… and I talk to her almost daily. Like all people that left Cuba in this era, when you left, you left with a small suitcase and for good, not knowing when – or if – you’d ever see anyone again.
Did he think about not going? He could have changed his mind at any time. There was a fifth companion to the story that decided last minute not to go. I wonder if companion 5 ever regretted that decision. My mom shrugs it off to my father’s age. You have to do crazy things like that when you’re young and not thinking porque once you’re un viejo you make different decisions.
She’s probably right. Sixteen year old courage is quite different than thirty year old courage.
But I don’t know. Maybe he would have done it anyway. My dad having not been a man of many words has always been a man of action. He doesn’t talk, he does. He doesn’t argue, he reacts. And his 16-year old mind, as absent to consequence as it might have been, had enough sense to intelligently plan an escape armed with both the knowledge he needed and the courage on his back.
As a kid that grew up in a fisherman village, he knew the ocean. He was practically born in it. He was a natural swimmer, a strong swimmer. I can’t count how many times he’d scare me as a kid when he’d swim out way to far in the ocean. I’d yell at him to come back like i was his mother.
He was as much a fish as the ones the fishermen caught. When you are from a fishing town, you know when the tide will be at its highest. You know when the Coat Guard was patrolling where. You know at what time during high tide would have the right ebb and flow, when your swimming would be minimal and floating with only your face to the moon would be at its most possible. And swimming had to be minimal because you couldn’t risk being seen and shot at.
Many kids, from Havana, had come to Caimanera attempting the same plan and died not knowing how to follow the pattern of the channel, not knowing that if you made one mistake and got caught in the current at the wrong time, at a time when the water was too strong, you would be washed out to the sea and have no chance of making it back. Being from Caimanera allowed my father the inside knowledge of knowing these things. He knew the Coast Guards were watching but he also knew that on that specific night two of the Coast Guard boats were broken so less guards were on duty, less eyes to find you.
“You had to know the area,” my father says simply.
When the time came, my father and his companions, lifted the floor boards of the house and one by one dropped themselves into the water like quiet, sinking rocks.
Was he scared? Did he know he’d make it? Did he even have time to think about these things?
They bobbed in the water for only a moment before beginning their 4 mile journey. They had to be smart. When do we swim? When do we float? And when I say float, I remind you that I don’t mean relaxingly float on a noodle or even on your back, legs and arms stretched out to all four corners. The purpose of floating here was only to breathe, keeping only your face above water. Everything else had to be quietly working underwater, like a duck – steady and still up top and legs paddling like an engine below. Minimal movement. No sounds.
Just thinking about it makes me feel like I’m suffocating. I don’t even like floating on my back in a pool, let alone in the middle of a bay on a dark night.
Once they were floating in the open water, faces to the moon, with guards patrolling, they couldn’t look around or call out to each other to make sure they were together. They had to keep quiet and keep calm on their own path, and, I imagine, have enough faith in each other to not cause a scene or call attention. If any one of them was overtaken by fear, they would all go down.
“Floating with only your neck above the water for two miles is a lot harder than you think,” my dad said once in his still present accent. “You neck starts to cramp but you can’t move. The floating was much harder than the swimming.”
I remember when my dad said that and thinking at that moment how that was something I would have never thought about before. Floating always seemed like something people did to relax. But when you’re doing it to survive and without being able to make sudden movements it becomes a different thing entirely… and two miles?!
Four miles doesn’t seem like a long distance to me because I’m usually traveling it by car. But when you’re swimming two miles and floating face above water for two miles, not able to kick or make noise or flail your hands for the lifeguard to save you with his little doughnut because, quite simply, your life depended on it, four miles, might as well be 90 miles.
But I guess you consider the alternative…
Knowing that all they needed to do was touch American soil, in this case, the Naval Base in Guantánamo, and they would be free was enough to keep them on course and focused on touching land.
They knew that there was a light at the Base that lit up when anyone arrived, alerting the officers that someone was approaching. They were expecting it. But when they arrived they heard a truck full of screaming guards roll by with the sound of rattling guns. Had they missed the base? They feared the worst; they had been caught.
Well, at least that’s what they thought they heard. What they did not expect when they arrived was that the light would not be working that night.
“The fearful mind is a funny thing,” my mom says when she tells me this part of the story, “It sees and hears what it wants.” What they actually heard was a truck full of loud talking Cubans roll by with drums. In my father’s scared shitless group’s defense, lots of Cubans in one place are known to sound like they’re arguing when in fact it’s just a conversation.
They had gotten to the base, all of them, and were taken in by the U.S. officers to eat and sleep for the night. Tomorrow the next step of his journey to the United States would continue…
I think sometimes he doesn’t want to remember. Or maybe he views it as something he had to do, not a choice. Sometimes, I think, he doesn’t understand the depth of his bravery, like this was something anyone would have done if they were in his shoes.
My dad’s decision trickled down years later. Once he was in New York, he would declare his mother, who because she lived in Caimanera, a small town, was stuck.
“That’s the problem with small towns,” my mom says. “Everyone knew what had happened, so they made it impossible for your grandmother to leave. They didn’t say ‘We are doing this because Rafelito left’ but everyone knew that was why she was denied for four years.” Eventually she would move to the big city of Havana and leave Cuba to be reunited with my dad. My dad would then also declare his father and his half brothers and sisters who would also eventually make it to the United States.
My Uncle Joe, not a man of little words, at almost every family party, will have a few drinks and rave about his brother, the hero, with excessive pride. He’ll retell the story always adding how “None of this,” drink held high to the ceiling, “would be possible without Rafelito. None of us would be here had Rafelito not done what he did.” And because Uncle Joe is an eloquent speaker he ends his cheers with, “That takes balls, man.”
I look at my father in these moments.
Still humble. Still little words. Still not knowing what the rest of us know. Because maybe he doesn’t have the words to say it, but I do (and so does Uncle Joe)
… not everyone is capable of that kind of courage. And that is what makes him a hero.
P.S. Returning to Cuba